Voting Online: Only in Exceptional Circumstances — like Hurricane Sandy

Displaced voters who vote by email or fax must follow up with a mailed-in ballot. (Ho John Lee: Flickr)

Displaced voters who vote by email or fax must follow up with a mailed-in ballot. (Ho John Lee: Flickr)

Because so many New Jersey voters are displaced by Hurricane Sandy, government officials are permitting online or fax voting — with a back up paper ballot. Computer technology and voter security experts say the rest of us shouldn’t get too excited that we’ll have this option any time soon. As the Washington Post reports, security concerns are too significant for online voting to be implemented more broadly:

Researchers said there is little to stop anyone from creating new e-mail accounts under the names of residents of disaster-hit areas such as Atlantic City and pretending to cast votes for them.

“How do you know that person is really who they claim to be? If a server receives e-mail, how do you verify the authenticity of that voter? It’s a big challenge, particularly in an ad hoc situation like this,” said Ron Rivest, a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Post further reports that displaced voters in New York will be permitted to cast a provisional ballot at any polling place, by order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in California, only overseas and military personnel can cast ballot by email:

Otherwise, no state precincts allow voters to cast their ballots via e-mail, and the state hasn’t considered building a secure Web portal for voters.

Why does it take a catastrophe for any state to tap an everyday communication medium as a means to vote?

There are several explanations, depending on whom you ask.

Nick Judd, managing editor of tech-in-politics site TechPresident, points out that ballots are supposed to be secret and untraceable back to the voter, and that if votes are sent by e-mail, they’ll create a record in the server that the provider – or even the government with a warrant – could access.

(In the cases of ballots from overseas military personnel, voters must waive their right to a secret ballot so the vote can be processed.)

Another concern: E-mail is not dependable. Servers can fail. And with encryption and security measures varying among e-mail providers, ensuring a secure transaction is tricky.

The Chronicle also took a look at voting through a government supported secure website. After all, we shop and bank on websites, right? The Chronicle cites David Jefferson, a cybersecurity expert with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is a strong voice against voting via government website:

“People have the illusion that e-commerce transactions are safe because merchants and banks don’t hold consumers financially responsible for fraudulent transactions that they are the innocent victims of,” Jefferson points out.

“Instead, the businesses absorb and redistribute the losses silently, passing them on in the invisible forms of higher prices, fees and interest rates. Businesses know that if consumers had to accept those losses personally, most online commerce would collapse.” …

For online ballots, the equivalent would be a lost or altered vote. But unlike spreading costs around within a large bank, polling places can’t compensate for erroneous votes.